FOXBOROUGH - The Patriots will carry an undefeated record into the RCA Dome tomorrow, but they suffered their first big loss yesterday.
The team announced running back Sammy Morris, its leading rusher (85 carries, 384 yards), had been placed on injured reserve with a chest injury, ending his season.
Morris, 30, was injured in the third quarter of the Patriots' 48-27 victory in Dallas Oct. 14. Following a 2-yard run, Patriots lineman Stephen Neal and Cowboys linebacker Bradie James landed on Morris with their combined weight, injuring a bone in his chest.
Original estimates had Morris returning after next week's bye, but the Patriots elected to open a spot on the 53-man roster. According to a league source, the team planned to activate cornerback Eddie Jackson, who was on the physically unable to perform list following a torn ACL last season.
The Morris move came as a slight surprise.
"A little bit, we were real hopeful," said Morris's agent, Mark Slough. "We were still holding out hope the last couple of days that he was going to get back in, but it became apparent he would not be back in time."
Slough said there will be no long-term implications from the injury and that Morris, who plans to remain around the team, will not need surgery, just time to heal.
"Nothing changed [with the injury]," said Slough. "It was just a question of at what point could he get back. It just became apparent that he wasn't going to be back in time to be able to contribute this year, so the decision was made. It was a close call, and so, I think it was close enough to put him on IR. It wasn't clear-cut."
After spending the last three seasons with Miami, Morris was signed to help mitigate the departure of Corey Dillon. The Texas Tech product was presumed to be a part-time player and backup for Laurence Maroney, but he quickly emerged as much more, to the point that quarterback Tom Brady called him a "surprise for everybody" and a "great addition."
The eighth-year running back entered the season with only one 100-yard rushing performance to his name, which had come against the Patriots last season, but he had two such efforts in his first five games as a Patriot.
Filling in while Maroney missed three games with a groin injury, Morris posted back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances against the Bengals and Browns.
He stepped into the spotlight at Cincinnati on "Monday Night Football" Oct. 1, rushing for 117 yards on 21 carries. During the 34-13 victory, Morris ripped off the Patriots' longest run of the season, a 49-yarder that set up a touchdown, and had a 7-yard TD run in the third quarter. He followed that by rushing for 102 yards on 21 carries in New England's 34-17 victory over Cleveland Oct. 7.
"Things were really going well and then this happened," said Slough. "The good news is that he had a chance to show what he can do and how he can contribute, and looking ahead to next year they've got to be excited about him being back and what he can do.
"This year, being new, I don't think everyone knew what he could do and how he could contribute going into camp, and he answered all those questions."
In Morris's absence, the team has Maroney, who has played in the last two games, and veteran Kevin Faulk as tailbacks, and a pair of fullbacks, Heath Evans and Kyle Eckel, who are capable of carrying the ball.
With Morris out, Maroney may be given a chance to prove he can be a feature back. Maroney said earlier this week he feels he's capable of carrying a bigger load, now that he's healthy.
"Things have started coming back," said Maroney. "You feel a little rusty at times, but the more and more you play, the more and more things start to come back to you and you feel more comfortable about things."
Slough said Morris will be ready to go for the Patriots' minicamps and team activities next spring.
"Oh, yeah, without a doubt," Slough said. "The only thing working against him now is the time. The season continues to click along. He'll be fine."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.